More chicklit than romance, Flamingo Diner is a well written, engaging story.
Emma Killian is enjoying her life as a Washington DC antiques dealer. When her younger brother Andy calls to say he's worried about her father, she's reluctant to return to her hometown of Winter Cove, Florida. Emma left years ago, wanting to get out of a too small town where, thanks to her family's popular Flamingo Diner, everyone knows everyone else's business. The decision to return is taken out of her hands when her father dies in an apparent suicide.
Emma returns home to find her family in shambles. Her mother would rather rely on sleeping pills and hide in her room than face life without her husband, Don. Her other brother Jeff seems to spiraling out of control with his druggie girlfriend. Emma can't believe her father would have committed suicide, so she is determined to find out the truth behind his death.
That's where Matt Aiken, former bad boy and now Winter Cove's chief of police comes in. The Killian family, particularly Don, turned around his life and he feels it is his duty to protect them. He also happens to have had a crush on Emma since he was a teenager, and sees this as his last chance to win her affections.
The plot of the book centers as much, if not more so, on the way the Killian family copes with their loss as it does the budding romance between Emma and Matt. A lot of time is spent with Rosa, the grieving widow. The reader follows her through her steps of grief, the denial, and the anger. It is a realistic journey. The reader sympathizes with this woman who has not only lost the love of her life, but suspects he took his own life, thus abandoning her. Rosa's emotions are very real and when she eventually gets to a support group, the reader is proud of her for having the strength to start over.
There is also the subplot involving Jeff. He is drawn as a typical twenty year-old, floundering and angry over the loss of someone he loved. The way he lashes out at his fellow survivors is again a natural and believable response. It's only the too pat resolution with the druggie girlfriend that mars his story.
Lest these two subplots overburden the book with pathos, Woods interjects a little levity in the form of Gabe and Harley, two Matlock wannabes. These friends of Don want to find out what really happened as much as anyone, and their bumbling investigation helps lighten the mood.
Both Matt and Emma are capable, appealing characters, but one doesn't get as much feel for them as they would have in a straight romance. They are more part of the ensemble than a couple. Their development is good, but a reader doesn't get that all consuming feel for them. Their relationship, however, proceeds at just the right pace.
Since Matt already has feelings for Emma, the development is mostly on her side. The way she gradually begins to see Matt in a new light is the perfect way to handle it. Had her perception been too instantly changed it would have made the whole thing seem false.
The main stumbling block with their relationship is Emma's obsession with returning to Washington. As she begins to fall in love with Matt she is constantly cutting herself off with the idea that it can't work because she is going back to Washington. She treats it as if it's a hard and fast rule, rather than something she can control. After a while one wonders why she HAS to go back to Washington when she's obviously finding happiness in Florida. She stubbornly clings to her determination to get out of the small town, even when the reasons become irrelevant. Still, it's a small nit to pick in an otherwise successful book.